The Electric Book Parade

By PrattAris

Two ideas: Marshal McLuhan’s idea of mediums as extensions of ourselves, as technical designs “amplify or accelerate existing processes” so the pace and scale magnifies, i.e. railroads and cars enlarging the human function of movement. Essentially, our central nervous system has manifested itself with electric technology, and yet it lays itself bare to overt mechanization. This notion couples well with Walter Benjamin’s idea that the product of mechanization lacks the presence of space & time, therefore, authenticity. The mechanical reproduction of a work of art is depreciated, just as a landscape cannot transfer its unique aura to a picture. These two ideas are subtly entangled within the contention between bound books & e-books.

Convenience is the glory of our current era, and e-books are a product of this value; after all, a whole library is accessible from one gadget with web features, PDF downloads, and a light weight design. Many college students rejoice as they no longer have to lug around hefty textbooks with lofty prices, sparing their backs and bank accounts. Moreover, e-comfort rubs our technophilic itch, efficiently slicing away analog drudgery. So why would a respected professor of journalism have e-books banned from her classes? Quite simply, because printed books are a “better interface” for seminar discussions; everyone works off the same page, otherwise students fiddle away class time with battery issues, interface hiccups, and searching relevant quotes. Also, using the same textbook contributes to overall class cohesion as discussions can concentrate naturally without e-distractions, bolstering the dialectical process of face-to-face interaction, which is a prime value of traditional education. It’s also reassuring to know the classes’ undivided attention is shared, whereas electronics allows one to wander. The ability to e-wander breaches the unwritten rule of classroom etiquette, that is, being present without escape. This exemplifies the difference between mediums: books are based on communication between minds, and e-readers are based on efficiency and amusement.

Another example of e-distraction comes from a recent study of middle school students. It revealed that those who read e-books retain less compared to students reading the same content in print. The e-reading students were unable to retell what they read. Researchers believe the “flashy gimmicks, fun interactive designs and ability to wander from the text distract readers from the task of actually, well… reading.” The message is filtered through the medium, a bound book is an object whose sole purpose is to be read. An opinion piece from Publishers Weekly echos this e-deficiency as the snarling author quickly connects technophilia with the degeneration of our minds, as we can no longer read (let alone write) War & Peace type literature because of our chronic scatterbrains induced by e-readings (blogs, tweets, emails, text messaging etc.). He believes we are straying from the supple & subtle mind that gave us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, “because our brains can no longer think beyond a tweet,” nor read beyond one as well.

Moreover, there are issues of freedom involved as well. Richard Stallman, a software engineer and founder of the GNU project believes e-books are a “step backwards” from printed books. Every advancement in technology furthers corporate infringement upon our freedoms, specifically privacy and ownership. For example:

– anonymity is impossible as user identification is required.

– instead of ownership, identified users sign a contractual agreement for restrictive licensed access.

– the format on e-book devices is proprietary, therefore restricted to specific software

– you can’t borrow books as traditional lending is not allowed without a gauntlet of red tape

– your e-book can be deleted without notice

Stallman simply believes companies should respect the freedoms of individual citizens, which of course is possible, and he posits solutions: offer authors direct payment from e-book users, and/or distribute funds based on author’s popularity. But we needn’t forgo rights that were vehemently fought for in the name of commercial convenience and e-amusements. After all, quantitative forces are behind e-readers, as profit and general statistics of readership are its root value, but this is strictly a mercantile approach that hardly considers qualitative factors that are the source of humanity’s greatness; a certain ineffability that is intrinsic to the qualities of being alive. These values are being brushed aside, along with privacy and ownership, for e-novelties.

Progress in science and tech inherently has the new superseding and replacing the old. Whereas the excellence achieved in the arts does not die with time, but continues breathing and enriching future generations.

Perhaps this face-off between e-readers and books is merely a consequence of the notion of progress, which is inseparable from science and technology, but is inappropriately applied to the arts. Progress in science and tech inherently has the new superseding and replacing the old. Whereas the excellence achieved in the arts does not die with time, but continues breathing and enriching future generations. A great work of art may inspire others to supersede it, but it’s impossible to replace it; for every influential work of art there is a barrel of books that critique, copy, satirize, adapts and reinterprets the work, most of which falls into the shadows of obscurity.

For literature specifically, the bound book is the best home for the life of ideas. Ideas that are revealed and preserved in words. Think of the Gutenberg bible on display at the NYPL main branch, you will never see an e-book displayed in such a way, even if it’s an exact replica of an incunabulum. The uniqueness of this specific book is inseparable from its material, thus its aura is irreproducible. The physical object is part of the artistry, authenticity and experience, something which e-readers are not capable of nor made for. Yet they are made for harnessing the prolific data stream, and e-everything is ushering us into our profane future without the aura of our traditional past, as it’s too slow, esoteric, and mythopoetic to serve the current mercantile/quantitative/vaudevillian value systems. However, every raging river has its side streams and quiet creeks, and this is where the literati will continue to thrive. And yet, there is a bigger question lurking about: to what degree are we willing to mediate being alive through a screen?

OBSERVATION of NYPL MAP DIVISION

By PrattAris

The New York Public Library’s palatial main branch is famed for its lionized gates to knowledge, and thousands of known and unknown scholars, artists, and autodidacts have used this space throughout its 100+ year history. The library functions not only as a research facility (where a full liberal arts education is available for free), but also as a fine art museum with galleries, murals, statues, architecture, and a tree lined portico. This is the ultimate library. It broadens the spectrum of what a library can be while maintaining what a library has always been.

1865 map of NYC by Egbert Viele showing natural waterways. Often consulted by developers.

There are a variety of divisions within the library based on their subject (i.e. Periodicals, Prints & Photography, Rare Books & Manuscripts, Jewish Studies etc.); given the brevity of this article I will be observing only one: the Map Division, located on the northeast corner of the first floor. Their holdings include more than 433,000 sheet maps, over 20,000 books and atlases, all ranging from the 15th to 21st centuries. They have six computer workstations that allow access to Google Earth, Digital Sanborn Maps:1867-1970, Oasis NYC: community maps of New York City, and, as always, the NYPL classic catalog. Their reading room has twenty-eight chairs that surround three oak tables that are original furniture from the building’s inception (1911). In the reading room there are approximately 1900 open stack books for self referencing (using Library of Congress classification), twelve antiquarian maps along the walls, three sizable globes on stands, one gargantuan 45lbs. atlas of earth, and an enclosed map exhibit. Wi-Fi is provided and personal laptops are welcomed.

My observation is based on five visits, each an hour long, with casual interactions among the staff. The reading room is quiet and has a studious aura; the age range is diverse; within those seated most are using electronics, some are reading with laptops, and a few are reading & writing without gadgetry. Seating can be scarce as the famous Rose main reading room is closed, therefore, a whole table is designated for those referencing the map collection, for many of the maps are large and the atlases hefty. Tourist trickle through the room regularly, basking in the Beux Arts decor, taking photos, looking at globes, occasionally flipping through the open stacks, but the gargantuan atlas receives regular attention. However, there is a zoological feel to the tourist amusing themselves while patrons study; I overheard someone ask the reference desk why there were so many people here, presumably they could do all this work from home, the librarian obliquely responded: “they have their reasons.”

The reference desk is stationed by one librarian at a time, with new shifts beginning every two hours, and their demeanor exudes patience along with a nuanced knowledge of the collection. The librarians have seven avenues of patron relations: email, telephone, written, reference, consultation, direction, and instruction. The first three are usually a sort reference work, but sometimes an appointment is made for consultation, which can be an in-depth assistance and advising on research, or arranging a class visit with instructors and deciding on content. On one occasion I saw a class of 15 undergraduates led to the back with a stack of maps awaiting them. I also noticed in a historical atlas of New York acknowledgments given to the map division for its cartographic consultation. Direction is on the opposite side of the spectrum and far more common, as it directs people to the restrooms, power outlets, computer labs, or a specific location in Midtown. Instruction can consists of catalog usage, workstation navigation, or simply applying for a library card. These seven avenues are the librarians realm of service, all of which is done with the utmost patience and professionalism.

The variety of readers and their purpose is broad: students working on a project, geologist, real estate developers, insurance companies, lawyers, construction companies, map enthusiasts, fiction authors, scholars, and grandparents showing grandchildren their old neighborhood.

The table reserved for patrons reading from the collection is left empty when not in use. Prior to the internet, the map division would average 30 readers daily, but now it has dropped to an average 10, and it lowers slightly during the summer and winter months. The variety of readers and their purpose is broad: students working on a project, geologist, real estate developers, insurance companies, lawyers, construction companies, map enthusiasts, fiction authors, scholars, and grandparents showing grandchildren their old neighborhood. Occasionally, a gracious reader will leave a copy of their published work, but sometimes they speak in detail about their research and it’s always fascinating. This reserved table is one of three, and yet its significance is notable; an aura emanates from it, or perhaps it is simply in better condition.

1635 map of the Americas by Wilhelm & Joan Blaeu. Famed for its beauty & precision

Some of the older maps show methods of preservation, such as being enclosed in clear plastic (mylar), or backed my canvass (muslin), but sometimes they use facsimiles instead of the original because of its fragile state. The NYPL does have a conservation department, but some paper is acidic and beyond repair; digitization is the another method to for long-term use. Although, in one instance a researcher insisted on the original and was accommodated.

There are two catalogs that are used in tandem: one is a physical nine volume book call GK Hall, which is essentially the original card catalog that dates back to the Astor/Lenox libraries (now known as the Public Theatre & Fricke Museum) and catalogs up to 1978; after 1978 the catalog is online, but here’s the rub: only some of GK Hall material is online, so both catalogs are needed to reference the entire collection. The best of both worlds.

CONCLUSION: the librarians are patient, helpful, and consistent. The space is studious despite the flow of tourism, random a-socialism, and other spontaneous events. The collection is exhaustive and fully available to the public. Truly a gem of New York City.

 

NYPL Map Division site

 

 

 

The Plights & Gripes of Machine Culture

By PrattAris

 

There are those who see our reverent notions of progress as problematic, as it has us progressing into a future without humanness, not only through ominous disruptions of the marketplace and various time-honored traditions, but also through the lack of general and specific skills gained through raw & direct experience; the subtle nuances revealed in the doing; the joi ne se qua of acting & bumbling throughout life. We have progressed to the point where all aspects of being alive is now mediated through machines of some sort.

In an article from the New York Review of Books How Robots & Algorithms are Taking Over,” they glumly review Nicolas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, which highlights some of his poignant statements, for example, he says “as we grow more reliant on applications and algorithms, we become less capable of acting without their aid… that makes the software more indispensable… [thus] automation breeds automation.” So much for free-will!

There is no denying machines have infiltrated every aspect of our lives and continues to do so at an exponential rate, as the derogatory term ‘drone’ illustrates, automation’s ubiquity has permeated our values and societal norms. The ‘drones’ see the world through a lens of handed-down rationalizations, believing efficiency is the most cost-effective way of living, therefore walking & talking as if mass produced on an assembly line; an existence of herding about in chain stores and speaking in platitudes. And yet, isn’t there something natural in all of this? To adapt and subtly embody whomever or whatever you spend your days with is unavoidable; to develop idiosyncrasies that reveal your daily doings and musings is only natural; similar to, let’s say, a dog that starts looking and acting like its owner. So then, are we merely wearing techno-collars leashed to progress? In the end won’t we be fed & happy like our adorable canine counterpart? Nicolas Carr doesn’t think so, he believes that we are undergoing a massive “deskilling” of the population, “as more authority is handed over to machines,” making us into “mindless sloths” who rely on the internet for every fact & figure. The result is a loss of expertise that comes with experience, which of course is never gained as we no longer have direct unmediated experiences, moreover, we no longer have unmediated knowledge. Carr sees our individuality and humanness dwindling as we adapt to the grinding uniformity and banality of machinery.

we are undergoing a massive “deskilling” of the population, “as more authority is handed over to machines,” making us into “mindless sloths” who rely on the internet for every fact & figure. The result is a loss of expertise

Yet every coin has a flip side. Can machines, specifically artificial intelligence, be a social endeavor? Something to enrich humanity in our pursuit of happiness? Phoebe Sengers believes so, in an essay Practices for a Machine Culture,” Sengers calls for a merger between cultural theory and artificial technology research, dubbing this merger “cultural informatics.” After all, the people of the 21st century are “the inheritors of industrialism, the progenitors of the information age.”  Senger also affirms that machines are part of our daily lives as we interface with it and imbibe its logic. However, Senger believes cultural informatics can develop a “poetic technology”  that strives for human enrichment over the cold quantifiable efficiency. She hopes “that rather than forcing humans to interface with machines, those machine may learn to interface with us, to present themselves in such a way that they do not drain us of our humanity, but instead themselves become humanized.”  It is a kumbaya notion that nicely balances Carr’s doomsday opinion.

cultural informatics can develop a “poetic technology” that strives for human enrichment over the cold quantifiable efficiency.  Hoping “that rather than forcing humans to interface with machines, those machine may learn to interface with us, to present themselves in such a way that they do not drain us of our humanity, but instead themselves become humanized.

Sengers essay also mentions the Winograd & Flores approach to A.I., which is through an existential Heideggerian lens, that is, people maneuver through the world with an inexplicable complex subjectivity, therefore, since A.I.’s cannot possess this human background of complexity, they will always be limited to formal problems of logic. This may be a comforting position as it renders A.I. research as unrealizable, however, it also alludes to the dangers of a machine without a human backbone.

Despite being nominated for the Pulitzer, Nicholas Carr lacks a certain amount of clout to sway our technophilic ways, and we can easily dismiss him as another ‘calamity prophet,’ but the NYRB article also mentions Stephen Hawking speaking in the same vein; forewarning us that if machines evolve faster than people, they will certainly overtake us. Hawking signed an open letter titled “Future of Life,” which is signed by plenty of clout touting characters (such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and various Silicon Valley gurus), and it essentially calls for a responsible artificial intelligence development that maximizes societal benefits while minimizing drawbacks: the resounding credo is “ A.I. systems must do what we want them to do,” and this “research is by necessity interdisciplinary because it involves both society and A.I.” (cultural informatics). The signatory list is long and the letter is short, plainly saying that A.I. is here and we must insure our safety, nay, our survival, against their emergence. Quite alarming, especially when you assume that some of these signatories know something that the rest of us don’t, and their knowledge spurred a letter for the future of life.

The NYRB article critiques the letter for prioritizing money over people, and questioning whose values will these machines inherit, as values “are not universal but, rather, culturally and socially constructed, subjective, and inherently biased.” The article ends on a bleak apocalyptic note: “We, the people, are on our own here–though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.”

My concern regards the library’s foundational essence eroding within this burgeoning world of quantity and algorithms; its quiet esoteric qualities discarded for our Vaudevillian moneymaking culture. Even the very word “library/librarian” is fading and morphing into “information science/scientist.” Moving into an era where libraries are merely store houses of data, and librarians become mere data crunchers supervising their machines. The palace of wisdom, memory, and imagination is mutating into a granary of simple facts efficiently managed and distributed for quantifiable purposes. Under the crushing weight of ever increasing data, the notion of what a library is, and always has been, is endangered.

And yet, despite all this gloom & doom stoking my inner misanthrope and pessimist, I can’t help in having hope… wait, better still: I can’t help in simply knowing there will be some folks who will keep the torch burning for humanity; random agents of chaos always crop-up regardless of the circumstance, and especially when they are needed most; and people are simply too weird and tenacious for automation to conquer the human spirit (see Modern Times). Therefore, technocratic uniformity can only go so far, “deskilling” has limits and unintended consequences that will spark reskilling, and if A.I. is realized, hopefully it will be made in our image, hence, just as weird and random as us, except they will have an off button.

 

 

1) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/apr/02/how-robots-algorithms-are-taking-over/

2) Sengers, “Practices for a machine culture: a case study of integrating cultural theory and artificial intelligence

3) http://futureoflife.org/AI/open letter

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